Book Excerpt #2 – The Mad Ventures of Bindlestiff Cliff

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“What do you fellas like to do?” Cliff asked, as if grasping for straws, which was precisely what he was doing.

Pedro answered first, and Peter listened before responding. It was obvious they had carved out a dynamic for their relationship, because they definitely had a routine. “Pedro says that there is a carnival in town. We could go check it out,” Peter said.

“What did you just say to me?” Cliff asked. He raised his voice sharply to the surprise of everyone in the car. “This cannot be happening,” Cliff said, as he closed his eyes and then rubbed his face hard enough to make his eye sockets go wonky and expose the weird red part under his eyelids.

“You don’t like carnivals I’m guessing,” John said. He painfully watched Cliff manhandle his face and wondered what the history behind his actions could be. Cliff was notorious for having history with many people, places, and events, but John did not yet know the extent of his mad methods.

“It’s no problem. We don’t have to go to the carnival,” Peter assured him.

“Oh, we are going!” Cliff adamantly proclaimed.

“That is interesting,” Peter commented.

“Why is that interesting?” Cliff asked.

“Pedro is the same way as you, I think. He hates carnivals but he loves going to them. Sometimes he stares at the same carnival worker for hours,” he said, as if he was spreading folklore. “It’s creepy,” he added.

“I realize we only just met, Peter, but what in the world is a carnival worker? You see, anyone you can call a worker is an actual human being,” he began to explain.  After an intentional pause to build up suspense, Cliff readied himself to finish explaining what he meant. “A carny is a person-like being that has been bastardized beyond their former self to the point that their own mother wouldn’t recognize them, thankfully. I have heard tale of mothers that weep for weeks after their child joins the carnival and, every once in a while, one of them will die from it. You can only hope the parents never find out about it at all,” he said, explaining his logical lunacy as best he could.

Pedro spoke to Peter. “They call them gypsies where Pedro is from,” he said and, as he said the word gypsies, Pedro spat towards the ground with a convincing scowl upon his face.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Cliff replied, specifically to the spitting. “Did you know that if a carny takes his shoes off,” he said but stopped to shudder at the thought, “and puts them into the soil, you can’t grow anything but cabbage in that soil for at least a decade?” he continued.

John decided he might as well play along, since Cliff noticed that he was amused. “Why only a decade? You said at least a decade,” he said.

Cliff was surprised by John’s participation. He also enjoyed that Peter was translating everything he said to Pedro. If the sedan and personal driver were not enough to make him feel important, his thoughts transformed into another language certainly did. “The length of time the soil suffers depends on several things: the soil quality, the climate, the amount of rainfall, and, most importantly, the blackness of the carny’s soul,” he explained, as Peter frantically translated his words. Once he had finished, he had the pleasure to translate Pedro’s rather heated response.

Cliff admired that Pedro seemed hate carnies with a similar passion. “What did he say, Peter?” he asked.

“The soul of a gypsy is as black as the devil’s dung,” he said irreverently.

John and Cliff both laughed, as did Pedro once he caught on. “That is funny stuff,” Cliff mentioned. “Remember, it is funny but also true,” he cautioned.

Pedro began speaking to Peter again and gestured for him to translate. Peter did not seem interested so they argued, once again, but Peter quickly caved in. “Pedro says that the urine of gypsies is a secret ingredient in napalm, and the government secretly houses them like cattle to milk it from them,” Pedro reluctantly translated.

“I think Pedro and I are going to be good friends,” Cliff replied.

The car ride was rather quiet and uneventful which, were not words usually used to describe anything having to do with Cliff. Nevertheless, it happened that way and, now, John pulled into the first available and acceptable parking spot near the carnival. This time, everyone got out on their own, and Cliff’s three companions stood aimlessly and waited for some direction.

The parking lot was brimming with moms, dads, grandparents, and, of course, children of all ages. The countless rows of cars in the lot seemed to be herding them towards the entrance. A limitless cacophony of talking and the crunch of gravely footsteps overlapped with the strong breeze and the faint mix of carnival music and screaming, no doubt from the more exciting rides. However, if Cliff had anything to say about the screams, he would likely have an altogether different theory.

Cliff was the last to get out of the car and did so with the most enthusiasm, even though his style of excitement for the carnival was in stark contrast to what a normal person’s would be. “Okay guys, we are going to need a good plan, and I think I have just the thing,” he said confidently, yet cryptically.

“Let’s hear it,” John said. He was really getting into the spirit, though perhaps misguided, of Cliff’s grand strategy. Not only that, they all four instinctually formed a huddle as soon as John spoke up about the anticipated plan.

“For now, we should do some recon,” he said and popped his head up to look around. He was under some assumption that someone might hear him or, less likely, someone might actually care what he was saying. “John, I’m thinking that you know what you are doing. I’m making this plan, so I think I am covered. Peter, you and Pedro team up and look for anything unusual,” he continued. He was taking this matter more seriously than the numerous times he had gone to jail in the past.

“What are we looking for,” Peter asked.

“That’s a fair question. I want you to watch people play the games. Look for games that are especially suspicious and that nobody seems to win. We are going to crack down on them, so don’t bother with the rides or the food,” Cliff explained but Peter was still unsure of his role.

“So what do we do if we see this happen?” Peter followed up.

“Oh, you will see it. Believe me. Don’t take action without finding me first. I will come up with something once we know more,” he explained further.

“Know your enemy,” John added.

“Exactly, is everyone clear?” Cliff asked, although he was still himself unclear since he was making all this up as he went. He took their silence as agreement as they went their separate ways. John in particular vanished quickly while Peter and Pedro blended in well enough.

Cliff walked slightly slower than he usually did. In fact, it took more effort to intentionally walk slowly than to walk at his natural pace. Perhaps he was stalling but, whatever the case, he ceased to walk slowly for fear that he was actually drawing some attention.

After sometime walking normally, Cliff came upon two carnies sitting on the back of a trailer, behind one of the larger rides, on the outskirts of the main area. He felt he may be able to gather some useful information if he simply listened from the safety of cover. He assessed the area as he walked closer to them, making sure he was not downwind from them if possible. Eventually, he noticed an empty food cart behind the trailer that should hide him while maintaining an adequate range for eavesdropping. As soon as he got into position, he thought he might have heard a third voice, one that he recognized. He peaked around the corner to find John standing right in front of the two carnies having a seemingly normal conversation. John instantly spotted Cliff, he is a professional after all, and, as soon as he saw an opportunity, he gave him a signal to stay put. Luckily, Cliff understood the signal and complied.

Suddenly, Pedro came around the corner opposite Cliff and began yelling at the two carnies. John deftly bumped into one of them, distracted by Pedro. Pedro abruptly stopped yelling and walked behind John. As he did, it appeared that John gave him something. As Pedro stormed away from the men, he made a beeline for Cliff as if he knew he was there all along. Pedro proudly presented Cliff with a set of keys and then winked at him before going his own way. Cliff was beside himself, because he had no earthly idea what to do with the keys since he decided, in that very moment, that it was not part of the plan.

As Cliff gathered himself, he noticed that Peter and Pedro were together again, and Pedro was waving him over. Curious, he began to walk over to them, but a hand firmly planted on his shoulder held him up, literally. As he spun around, he discovered, happily, that it was John.

“Take it easy, John. I expected more subtlety and finesse from you here. Remember, Peter and Pedro is the broadsword and you are the scalpel,” he said, his voice lowered ever so slightly.

“Relax, I didn’t make a scene. The trick in a public place like this is to hide in plain sight. There’s no sense in walking next to twenty people and being the only one skulking about,” he replied, making a good point. “Let me have those keys back,” he demanded.

“Fine, but why didn’t you just keep them in the first place?” Cliff asked, as he gladly handed him the keys. He was more than a little disturbed by the number and the potency of the carny diseases that likely enveloped the set of keys.

“I was afraid those men would be suspicious of me, and they were, and they might ask me to turn out my pockets, which they did,” he explained, as if it was obvious.

“Fine, I get it,” Cliff replied. He was annoyed, not necessarily by John, by the fact that he failed to see the merits of the plan before he heard the explanation.

“Thanks, I have to go,” John said hastily and began to rush off.

“Hold on,” Cliff said. John sprang back as if an unknown force shoved him.

“What is it?” John asked, finally conceding the whole sir business, and was possibly more into their insurgence than was Cliff.

“What are you going to do with those keys?” Cliff asked. The mystery was quickly stripping away what little patience he could muster.

John sensed his eagerness and, rather than put his mind at ease, he simply smiled and began to scamper off to whatever mischiefs he had in store. “Trust me,” he said, as he trailed off into the distance. He had convinced Cliff about hiding in the open, because not one other carnival goer even flinched when John hollered back at him.

Speaking of hiding in the open, Cliff noticed that Pedro’s waving had become overzealous to the point that people did take notice of him. With this in mind, and an unhealthy pretension that he matters to strangers, Cliff hurriedly made way to the conspicuous rendezvous.

“Hey fellas, what’s the emergency?” Cliff asked sarcastically. He had an unusually high percentage of sarcasm in his day-to-day dealings, and he meant to meet his daily quota just as he imagined Bob was, wherever he was.

“You said we should let you know if we saw something, so we signaled for you to come over here,” Peter explained. Sarcasm had no effect on him.

“I did say that, so let me hear it,” he replied.

“This game here seems to be unwinnable. People keep trying but nobody can do it. There was one very angry man that I thought was going to hit the worker, and there was a child that cried too,” Peter explained.

“Well, many of the games are going to be like that to an extent. Otherwise, they would not make any money at all, and they might as well leave,” he said. He thought about what to do next, since John seemed to be the only part of the plan that was bearing any fruit. At least he had a set of keys to show for his efforts. “I’m confused because we just got here, so why are you already focusing on this one game?” he asked.

Pedro spoke. “Pedro is right. When you smell a rat, you smell a rat,” Peter replied. Cliff was getting a sense that he may never know who is actually sharing thoughts when it came to Peter and Pedro. It also occurred to him that it might not even matter.

“What do you mean by that, and can he understand what I am saying?” Cliff asked. He was naturally suspicious, as always, and noticed that Peter did not translate any part of his last statement.

“We know this game stinks,” Peter answered, ignoring Cliff’s inquiry about Pedro. “We didn’t just watch. John took Pedro for something and, while they were doing that, I asked some people which game was the hardest. Most people said it was this one.” Peter explained their conclusion rather well, and Cliff seemed convinced of their theory.

“What do you want to do about it?” Cliff asked.

Pedro and Peter conferred briefly. “I will play the game and try to win the panda with the pink fur,” Peter said and felt the need to point to the panda as if it was not as big as a chubby toddler was. Pedro shook his head adamantly, so there was little doubt that he agreed with Peter’s plan, which gave Cliff some insight into their combined thought process.

“It doesn’t matter which one you win, just try to win something,” Cliff said, unaware at the offense he just caused.

It came as little surprise that Pedro began yelling again and mainly focused it on Peter, which seemed to be typical. “No, it has to be that panda,” Peter said, relaying the message.

“Okay, he did it again. I know he can understand me at least a little,” Cliff accused.

Peter, maybe out of habit, glanced at Pedro before speaking and then chastised himself for doing so. “Okay, so he can understand some things but he still can’t speak to you. We never said he could,” Peter explained.

“Forget it,” Cliff said and he sighed out of frustration. “Let’s move ahead with your plan,” he continued and took in the deep breath of a yogi. “Now go win that panda!” he exclaimed. Despite his excitement, he was more interested in motivating Peter and earning a temporary reprieve from the excruciating process of talking to them. Unfortunately, he was yet to be free of them, for Peter crept in and squatted on his bubble of personal space.

“I hate to bring this up, Cliff, but we need a little something to get the plan rolling,” Peter said, making the clichéd three-fingered gesture to indicate money.

Cliff did not reply, because he found it much easier to cover their expenses. After all, he said he would pay them to hang out with him, and this was merely part of that promise. Peter readily accepted the cash. Then, he and Pedro walked merrily away, because they have never had a job that required them to attempt to win a stuffed animal.

Cliff stayed back for a while and observed his cohorts in action. Since neither of them appeared to be having much luck, he decided to take a closer look at the goings-on. To that end, he walked up to the tent and was amazed, not in a good way, at what he saw.

The tent was a sad yellowy color that screamed out as if to convince the world that it actually used to be white. Rusty metal spikes, not unlike railroad spikes, anchored it to the ground. Furthermore, the game itself was an organized chaos of little jugs with the goal being to toss a ring over the neck of the jug. Cliff did not know whether the jugs were formerly milk jugs, but the tent certainly reeked with a rotten milk smell. Of course, the smell certainly could have come from the game’s attendant, who was quite a remarkable sight.

The attendant was skinny with overly knobby knees and elbows, and his fingernails were nearly as thick as dominos and overrun with a sickly shade of brown. In addition, his hair was thin as if he had a terminal illness yet his mustache, body hair, and eyebrows were thick and vibrant. His eyebrows were not technically a unibrow but they had a sporadic organization forming an archipelago of hairs that became part of his eyebrows by default. It was as though his body used so much energy growing all the mustache, eyebrow, and body hair that there was nothing left when it came to growing the hair on his head. In addition, the excessive fueling of hair growth by his body almost certainly had weakened his immune system, because he coughed viciously every thirty seconds or so, like clockwork. When taking the tent and attendant as parts of a whole, the entire setup looked like an eccentric serial killer had retired and used the tools of his former trade to construct a carnival game.

When Cliff got close enough, the carny moved in for the kill, so to speak. As he approached him, Cliff could feel a sense of heat drifting towards him like a fog gently rolling along. Once he got closer, a breeze picked up and blasted Cliff with a fragrance so pungent he could feel it all the way down to the pit of his stomach. Until then, he never knew it was possible to feel a smell, but it covered him with a film similar to bug repellant spray, stickiness and all. It was as if the stank of two centuries worth of medieval warfare somehow blasted him directly in the face.

“Do you think you have what it takes to win the game? Give it a try,” the carny greasily greeted him. Now that Cliff heard and saw him speak, he could see that the state of his teeth had very much in common with his monstrous fingernails. He applied the same theory about his hair to his teeth. It was likely that his breath was slowly killing his teeth with each lethal exhale. Cliff assumed that the carny’s breath had to be registered as a deadly weapon in more than a few states, particularly on the east and west coasts.

Cliff had a witty remark stored in his memory bank for this very occasion but, when he tried to speak, he instead dry-heaved fiercely right in the carny’s face. Peter and Pedro stopped what they were doing, as did anyone else within earshot, and were dumbfounded, though empathetic, by his reaction to the carny.

“Are you okay?” the carny asked.

Cliff was taking some deep breaths to counteract his compulsion to heave but, with each breath, he took in more of the carny’s toxicity, thus a perfect storm was beginning to hatch. “I would love to try your game,” Cliff uttered, as he managed to gather himself just enough to speak.

“That’s what I like to hear,” the carny said. He had a mischievous smile and a twinkle in his eye that, under the circumstances, resembled a glimpse into the flames of Hades, at least from Cliff’s point of view.

“Not so fast,” Cliff announced.

“Pardon me?” the carny replied.

“I want to see you place a ring around the jug, so I know that this isn’t just a scam,” Cliff explained loudly, before another dry-heave overcame him.

The carny was no stranger to this type of comment, since he peddled his lousy game all over the country, encountering more than a handful of skeptics along the way. “Absolutely, my friend, that is no problem at all,” he said and simply placed a ring over the neck of one of the jugs. “You see? There is no need to worry about that now. You certainly have an eye for things, so I bet you will do great if you decide to play,” he added.

“Thanks for humoring me. I think I will play after all,” Cliff said. Unbeknownst to him, the carny was playing right into Cliff’s hands.

“Here you are, my friend,” the carny said, as he traded a few of his rings for a few of Cliff’s dollars. Cliff stood there for a while and watched as Peter and Pedro failed while the carny was growing quite a crop of cash. After a minute or two, the carny noticed Cliff was not throwing his rings. “Is something wrong?” he asked.

“There’s just one more thing,” he said, as he offered one of his rings to the carny, “I want you to place one of my rings on the jug like you did before,” he continued.

The request flabbergasted the carny. “I don’t want any trouble, friend,” he announced. His body language made it clear that he wanted no part of Cliff’s idea.

“It’s no trouble at all, is it? All I want you to do is put one of my rings on the jug. I will even forfeit the rest of them,” Cliff persisted. “Stop calling me friend,” he added, as he, once again, violently dry-heaved in the carny’s face. To him, his complexion felt like it looked as though he had the late stages of radiation poisoning, but he could only guess how it looked to others.

“How about I give you a refund, and you can go try one of the other games?” he asked diplomatically.

“What are you afraid of? Besides soap and deodorant, I mean,” Cliff said. His insult had instantaneously changed the demeanor of the carny.

Suddenly, the carny grabbed all of the rings out of Cliff’s hand and nonchalantly tossed them over his head. “Oops, it looks like you lose,” the carny said, in an ocular deadlock with Cliff.

“Thanks for proving my point, carny,” Cliff said dismissively. “Everything about you is a scam, save your conception. I find that fact particularly unfortunate,” Cliff added. He was not typically so quick to insult people but, as far as he was concerned, carnies were the exception to the rule, since their status as people was perpetually a matter for debate.

“Get out of here!” the carny demanded.

Pedro quietly conferred with Peter. “Excuse me, carny sir, we were wondering if we could buy the panda with the pink fur,” he said and glanced apologetically at Cliff. “We were unable to win it by playing your game so, can we?”

The carny wasted very little time in making his decision, for he looked upon the lot of them with a disdain as thick as his cartoony mustache. “I don’t think so. Now, get out of here before there is trouble,” he threatened. “I don’t want to have to get Greasy Moe involved in this, but I will and you don’t want that to happen. I promise.”

“Who’s this Greasy Moe?” Cliff asked contemptuously.

“He’s the boss. Why, do you really want to meet him?” the carny asked eerily and smiled similarly.

“Wait, so you’re telling me, this guy is significantly greasier than the rest of the carny scum, like yourself, to the point that you added the term greasy to his name. From where I’m standing, you people all look you would instantly catch fire if you banged two rocks together,” Cliff insulted him further.

“I said get out!” the carny yelled, once again, only this time a flock of his carny brethren backed him up.

Pedro began yelling at the carny and Peter and Cliff, especially Cliff, were all too happy to let him, even though it was unlikely he understood. Soon, Peter and Cliff began to walk away, but Pedro lingered, so he could yell as long as possible. Luckily, their timing could not have been better, because they walked right into John, as if they knew where he was all along.

“Hey, I was watching when you were at the ring toss. That wasn’t exactly subtle,” lectured John. Pedro finally caught up to the rest of them. Unfortunately, he immediately began to rant at Peter.

“Does that ever bother you, Peter?” Cliff asked. Furthermore, if it did bother him, Cliff intended to talk him into standing up for himself, not necessarily because he cared about his feelings, because he cared a great deal about mischief.

“I have gotten used to him,” Peter replied. “He’s not really yelling at me, most of the time, he is just using me as a medium to talk to everyone else. Honestly, he doesn’t usually talk this much when we are on the job,” he added.

“What is he saying? Is he trying to tell us something?” Cliff asked.

“I don’t think so. He is mostly just venting I think,” he explained. “He is still talking about that panda. He wanted it for his granddaughter, she asked for one that looks very much like that for her last birthday, but we could never find one. He keeps saying something about it raining pandas on the carny’s head or something,” he continued. “I think he wants to knock the tent down or shake it until all the animals fall down. I’m not sure.”

Cliff was now utterly convinced that the entire day was the beginning of his path towards destiny. In that moment, he had an idea about as crazy as he thought their little group could handle. He dramatically turned his head and looked at John. “The answer to this question is going to be yes, I can feel it,” he said and paused to increase the dramatic effect of said question. “John, can you fly a helicopter?”

“Actually, yes I can,” John replied, with swagger.

“We must go. There is much to do,” Cliff said, without explanation. Before anyone could ask for one, he was rather far away, showing no sign of slowing down. John, Peter, and Pedro all seemed at a loss for words, so the logical thing to do was simply catch up to Cliff and see where things went from there.

Copyright © 2016 by Adam L. Cobden. All Rights Reserved.

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